About a decade ago, I traveled to South Korea with a motherland tour, a group of adult adoptees. The trip, as I recall, was partially sponsored by the South Korean government, as a way to encourage these displaced Koreans to learn about the culture of their homeland. They acknowledged, we were told, the number of Koreans who, through international adoption, were living in other countries. They wanted us to come back, even if only for a visit.
Who responds to such an invitation?
The ones who are searching. We were a ragtag group. At 29, I was among the oldest in the group of about thirty of us. Most were in their early twenties, the longing visible on their smooth broad faces. I considered myself rather sophisticated in the vicissitudes of love and life at this point, already with a four-year-old daughter, and a failed marriage behind me. So, when one particularly fragile young woman collapsed (from the heat? exhaustion? the sheer emotional weight of such a trip?) I took it upon myself to be a kind of caretaker, sitting with her on the air-conditioned tour bus, holding her head on my lap, stroking her hair, dabbing at her forehead with a cool cloth.
More than anything, we wanted to feel something.
As we were led through a reproduction of a traditional folk village, or to the countryside to visit local schools, or to the stunning Mount Sorak shrouded in mist, we were searching for a thing - that moment at which we could say: Yes, something in my body, in my bones remembers this. This is a part of me. And this, too.
Is it strange to say I was looking for a kind of closure? A thing that would let me say: Now that I have set foot on this ground, filled my lungs with its air, felt its dirt between my fingers; now, I know something about who I was when I left this place, all those years ago.
About who I am now. About who I might become.
Closure is, of course, an elusive (illusory?) thing. I made lists of the thing I wanted to remember:
The dusty, dry earth of the countryside.
The schoolchildren in their white shirts and blue jumpers, laughing over jumping games during late-morning recess.
Every woman of an age I thought my mother might be.
The crowded markets - booths set up like the giant flea market on Sundays at the Yonkers Raceway, a jumble of items laid out on folding tables, waiting for bids.
The giant urns of kimchee, fermenting.
The young men, passed out and sleeping on benches in the city, after nights of binge drinking.
The piles of stones along the path up Mount Sorak. Are they trail markers? Are they prayers for the dead? I picked up a stone, add it to the pile. There seemed a solemnity to it, and I wanted to participate, drawn, as I was, to anything that smacked of ritual.
When I arrived at NY’s LaGuardia airport in March of 1974, I was 2 years and 5 months old. Based, at least, on the estimated date of my birth. Knowing what I know about child development from my own children, I am fairly certain that at 2 years, 5 months, I had language. In the thin file of documents that I have on my adoption, there is a reference to my speaking (“She has a clear voice. She speaks loudly.”). I like to assume that I had attachments - to the foster family in whose care I was placed, but it is difficult to know how long I was there, and whether this family was one of many placements, or a more long-term one, which might support attachment, affection.
On the trip, we had the opportunity to visit several orphanages and to meet with officials who could help us with a birthparent search. This was optional, and I declined. I may have been the only one who did so. I don’t know, really, why I decided at the time that I was not prepared for that particular journey, but certainly, if given the chance again, I would take it. What did I expect to see? There will be time, I thought. When I am ready, I thought. Or perhaps I had simply grown too attached to my own narrative of how alone I was in the world, how disconnected, even from my immediate past.
I took photos of the trip - the things we saw, the people we were - and when I look at them now, as when I look at my list, I don’t feel much of anything. I want to read meaning into everything, want it all to be laden, weighty with answers to questions I have not yet even asked about who, and why, and what.
When I returned, I told stories to my friends, to my family. I told them that there was a kind of power, a kind of magic in standing on that ground, in taking it all in. I may have believed it at the time, may have wanted to believe it. I am sure that the people who love me wanted this to be true as well. A way to ease the burden of the mysteries we all carry.
Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps it is not the trip itself that matters, or the dusty earth, or the way the sunlight glistened on the blue roof of the country schoolhouse in the late morning, or the stones I warmed in my hands before placing them on a pile and saying a silent prayer for the ancestors I would never know. Perhaps the trip is just as simple as a dot placed on the map of my life, one moment, indistinguishable from the thousands of other moments that together, compose a life.